When he was just eighteen, Joel Taylor left his home of Sydney, Australia to pursue a career in music. Leaving behind an abusive and violent home life, his sights were set on the United States, and he’s lived in Los Angeles ever since. He soon found himself living with famed French guitar maker James Trussart, and was regularly surrounded by musicians like ZZ Top, Jackson Browne, and John Oates. After spending time touring with bands as a piano player and honing his songwriting skills, he officially began his career as a solo artist.
As a solo artist, Taylor has released just a few songs to date, though he’s already developed a sound that’s warm and comforting, blending familiar old-school gospel and soul sounds with a modern pop sensibility. His most recent single and video release is “Moment’s Notice”, which confronts his upbringing and starting over in Los Angeles. Now, he’s finishing up his debut EP, which will be released in early 2019. The EP title is yet to be determined, but in a conversation with Substream, he shared that he hopes it gives listeners “a good, all-around picture of myself as an artist.”
Read the full interview below, where Taylor discusses the impact “Moment’s Notice”, the forthcoming EP, and what home truly means.
SUBSTREAM: Your most recent release is “Moment’s Notice”, which takes a look at your experience growing up in a violent household with a troubled family; what’s it like writing and singing about that part of your life that is now, at this point, in your past?
JT: The song actually flowed really easily. I wrote the song in the middle of the night before I had a meeting with a publisher, and I wanted to bring some new [and] different songs to our meeting. I spent all night writing other things, like simple pop songs; then, in the middle of the night, I felt stuck. I think it was about 2 in the morning, I sat down at the organ and started playing this… thing, which totally flowed out of me, instantly, and I didn’t even know what the song was about yet. I was just singing nonsense and I started writing pages of lyrics down, and everything was – not just intense but very personal, more personal than I’d ever written about.
It did feel like it was just flowing out of me. When I started piecing it all together, crafting the song was like a huge therapy session. The whole process was really cathartic and kind of relieving, cuz it does deal with some tough topics, like growing up in a family with an alcoholic parent and an abusive household. It’s super personal and a pretty raw subject matter; it’s not really anything you could sugar coat. But it just kind of… happened and I went with it, and it was really therapeutic and I think beneficial, too. It wasn’t actually that hard to write about, surprisingly; it’s been harder to show it to people and not feel like it’s giving too much of my life story away. But then I came to peace with that as well.
SUBSTREAM: Right – that makes sense what you’re saying, the idea that writing it, getting it out on a page isn’t the hard part, but sharing it with people can be where it makes you feel – I don’t know if “self-conscious” is the word…
JT: It kind of is, yeah.
SUBSTREAM: Have you gotten any messages from people that have connected with the song?
JT: Actually, a lot. It’s funny, as you grow up in certain situations, even though you know, intellectually, that there’s many people that have similar situations, you get wrapped up in your own story; when so many people start saying, “Oh, your song reminds me of when I grew up like this” or “when I had this”, you realize how – unfortunately – universal some of those themes are, that so many people deal with that or have a family that gets torn apart or dysfunctional because of alcohol abuse or different things like that, and you realize how widespread it is.
I got a message last night from a friend of mine who said that [they had] their mom listen to the song. They shared it and then they had the deepest conversation of their life ever, the daughter and the mom because that was something they had dealt with for years and they’d never talked about it. She sent me a text message saying that it was the best conversation she’s ever had with her mom. So that’s really cool, [it’s] an unintended consequence of writing something really personal. I was really surprised how many people have sent me messages; it’s resonated with a lot of people.
SUBSTREAM: For sure. And that’s amazing to hear when music connects with people.
JT: Yeah, it really is.
SUBSTREAM: Several years ago, right when you turned 18, you moved from Sydney, Australia to Los Angeles; why Los Angeles?
JT: I’m not even really sure, to be honest. At first, I wanted to go to Berklee, and I got in. I thought, “Oh, I’m going to go to music school in Boston and I’ll be the world’s greatest jazz piano player”; in my brain, that’s what I was doing. My uncle was living in LA at the time, working here, and he said to me, “Why don’t you just come to LA?” He walked by a music school one day, the Musician’s Institute in Hollywood, and he casually said to me on the phone, “Oh, you should just go there – why don’t you just go there and come to LA?” And I said, “Cool, okay!”, and that was it.
Two weeks later I was filling out paperwork, and a couple months later, I came. I really had no plan except for I knew I wanted to only do music, I wanted my life to be about music, but I guess I knew that I wanted to be here and I wanted to start fresh somewhere. It was great that I had my uncle here for a few months. After that, he went back to Australia, so then I didn’t know anyone, but it helped me over the edge and gave me a transition.
It was a bit of a crazy story, cuz I got a scholarship from a foundation in Australia to further my music career, it could be used in any area – it was fifteen, it might’ve been ten thousand. When they awarded me this thing in high school, I thought, “Oh, I’m going to move to America and I’m going to pursue music – that’s all I’m gonna do, I’m gonna use this money and I’m gonna go” – and they never paid me. So I was here waiting for money and I didn’t have much money, I’d already spent my little bit of savings that I had as a high school student from working and my mom put my flight on her credit card. I was waiting for this money that I was getting and it never came, and it turned out the whole thing was not true – they didn’t have any money. It was a real foundation but they weren’t in the position to give me a scholarship as they’d already promised. They kept telling me that they sent the money and all these things, and there was never any money. It was really crazy. I came here on a kinda false promise, and then… then I stayed.
SUBSTREAM: In “Moment’s Notice”, you say, “I don’t think I’m ever gonna go back home” – that idea of leaving home, finding a new place to be, is one I’ve found throughout your music; what does “home” mean to you?
JT: Home, to me, is where I feel the most comfortable and safe and happy. I love traveling and I love being on the road and playing shows so I’ve never really had that homesickness that a lot of people get. I really do miss Australia, actually, and I definitely feel that it is my real home – but home, to me, means being with people that I love, having a cup of coffee, and being able to socialize and feel comfortable and be relaxed. I made LA my home and it feels so much like my home that I can’t really imagine living anywhere else at the moment. As long as I have my feet firmly planted on the ground, I can feel good about life.
SUBSTREAM: A lot of your songs mix some pretty old-school, even gospel, influences with more modern pop elements; can you talk to me about how you go about creating a sound that draws from different areas but also feels natural and genuine?
JT: I love so many different styles of music. I grew up listening to only old music – my mom was a piano player and she played rock and roll, boogie-woogie, Jerry Lee Lewis sort of piano, and my mom’s dad – my grandfather – plays exactly the same. He played for Roy Orbison, he played for the Everly Brothers, he played for the Beach Boys – he was an awesome piano player, he still is, he’s 80 and still awesome. We were always surrounded by music. It was always Chuck Berry, The Beatles, Ray Charles, Stevie Wonder, MoTown, Sam Cooke, Paul McCartney, James Taylor… Billy Joel was a huge person, the reason I play piano, even. I grew up with all these influences that were definitely before my time, and that always felt so natural to me.
I always loved those organic styles of music, and at the same time, I definitely am a product of the 2000s and I love pop songs. I love a good, catchy song that people can remember and sing along to, so I’ve always tried to put those two things together as easily as I can, I never want to force it. Sometimes I write an old-school-sounding soul song and I just leave it. I don’t think like, “Man, I need to tweak this and make this sound more like this”, because I feel like that’s a bit a phony. But luckily for me, the way I have been writing so far is I do write with a pop sensibility because I’ve always loved famous pop songs from the history of the world. I love The Beatles, I love The Rolling Stones, I love all these people.
I definitely have always tried to have a concise message, I’ve always been trying to toe the line between classic and new, and then the other thing is I’ve produced everything myself. So I play every instrument – a couple songs I haven’t played drums on, but I’ve played pretty much everything else – and I think just doing that and piecing everything together is pretty modern. I can’t help but be modern by doing that; you know, I didn’t get a band together in a room and play these songs, I one-by-one layered everything. I almost did “Moment’s Notice” completely on my laptop. Not completely, but close to it – it doesn’t get more modern than my MacBook Pro, soul song.
SUBSTREAM: Your debut EP is coming out next year; what do you hope that listeners get out of the EP?
JT: I hope they get a good, all-around picture of myself as an artist. I know it’s not a full-length album and it’s not a ton of songs, but I really do hope that they get a good picture of what makes me tick and what I care about. I think they will. The EP definitely has its sad songs, its love songs, it’s got a dance-y, fun, easy song that you just wanna strut down the street to, and it’s got a gospel soul song with a choir. I do think that I’ve done okay at at least trying to capture all the different areas of my personality.
SUBSTREAM: If you could go back and talk to yourself at age seventeen, before you had left home and started studying music in America, and give your younger self a piece of advice or some words of wisdom, what would you say?
JT: I would say… don’t rush anything. Don’t expect that things will happen overnight, don’t get stressed about pointless little things that you think are going to be the be-all and end-all of your entire life, and just try and enjoy every step of the process. When you’re a young person who has wide eyes for the whole world and you’re finally out doing your own thing, you’re really optimistic and you think that you can do anything, which is awesome, but on the other side of things, I was really impatient when I was seventeen. I was like, “Man, in two months I’m gonna have a record deal, and after that, I’m gonna be playing with Taylor Swift, and the next month I’ll be doing this, and then I’ll be…”. I had this idea of how it should be, and if it wasn’t there yet, I judged myself really harshly. But the truth is at that point I wasn’t even ready to be an artist. I was touring with bands as a piano player, and that was really what I should’ve been doing. I think I would tell my younger self, “just enjoy it, and have fun. Your time will come when you feel ready to do these things – you don’t have to rush it. There’s plenty of time.”
SUBSTREAM: Absolutely, that’s a great sentiment. Your first headlining tour in the US is coming up next year; what can people expect from your live show?
JT: They can expect a lot of energy. I have a really fun band that has been with me since I started, and they’re awesome – they’re all my best friends. We go pretty hard [laughs], even though I have some more singer-songwriter-y sort of stuff, we definitely go to one hundred when we play live, and I am soaking wet sweating, and jumping around the stage. I think people will definitely get a good, connected performance. I really try and bring people into a show and I don’t try and blow their heads off straight away, you know, come out blazing and overbear people with sounds – so hopefully people will get a good, nuanced picture of me, and I think people will really have fun. I really love playing live, it’s what I’ve always done first and foremost, play piano and sings. I do think that people seem to understand my music the best when they see me play a show, so I am excited to play a bunch of shows. It’s gonna be great.
Visit www.ThisIsJoelTaylor.com for more information on Joel Taylor